Zebratown

Jayu via Flickr

"...When I get home [to Brooklyn] I get a change of thoughts.  Finally, I decide to play that Elmira card every other weekend.  Peace.  Quietness, peacefulness.  That's mainly what I was lookin' for."
           -- Kevin Davis in "Zebratown"

For some reason, in the roll-call of locales that bear the responsibility of hosting a New York State penal institution, the name of Elmira doesn't have the same chilling reputation as Attica or Dannemora or Ossining.  It could be because Elmira is also famous for other things.  Until the early 20th century Elmira, not Binghamton, was the dominant municipality of the Southern Tier.  It manufactured fire engines and typewriters.  It's still a college town and was Mark Twain's favorite place to write.  "Mention my name in Elmira..." sang vaudevillians, "...It's the greatest little town in the world..."  Even the Elmira Correctional Facility itself was noted for its founding in the 1870's as a progressive "reformatory".

In recent years the city of Elmira has suffered through the economic slowdown affecting much of upstate New York, while the prisons have functioned less as a truly correctional system and carried on in what's been called an "era of incarceration".  Today the hulking hilltop prison in Elmira is one of the city's major economic resources.  You'd think that anyone who had been sentenced there would wish to get as far away as possible after his release date.  But some men have chosen to stay, including African-Americans from downstate who have established relationships with local (mostly white) women from the Elmira area.  Many of these interracial families now live in a neighborhood on the east side that's earned the nickname "Zebratown".

The experience of Kevin Davis is perhaps typical of many of the inmates in the Elmira Correctional Facility.  He was an African-American youth from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a densely-packed community once described as Brooklyn's version of Manhattan's Lower East Side.  He was regularly in and out of trouble and, tried but found not guilty of a murder charge, "Killa Kev" spent seven years at Elmira and other prisons for aggravated weapons possession, finally being released in 2000.  The New York City police were able to finger Davis after seeing him in a group photo on the dust cover of "The 'Ville", a 1994 book about police operations in Brownsville by journalist Greg Donaldson.  Following his incarceration, Davis began an e-mail correspondence with Donaldson.  They then met, grew to trust one another and for the next seven years the lives of the writer and the ex-con were intertwined.  Greg Donaldson is also an associate professor in the Department of Speech, Theater and Media Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York.

Kevin Davis is a survivor, guided through his prison years in part by skills developed as a professional boxer and partly by a personal code of conduct drawn from Robert Greene's book "The 48 Laws of Power".  His bearing has been that of the "gangsta".  But his personal life in Elmira has also tested his stability and sensitivity, especially his relationship with "Karen Tanski" (Donaldson uses pseudonyms for many people), a single mother from Gillett, PA, a rural community just south of Elmira.  Her relationship with Kevin fits a local pattern:

Karen and many of the young white girls in Elmira...like the swagger and the slickness and the way the young black men take care of their clothes.  Some white  girls Karen knows have corresponded with black inmates from the Elmira prison and it is not uncommon for white Elmira women of any age to visit black inmates at the prison up on the hill.  Karen winces when she overhears racial slurs, can't understand the hostility she hears from some older whites.
    -- from "Zebratown"

It took Greg Donaldson seven years of "immersion journalism" to complete "Zebratown: The True Story of a Black Ex-con and a White Single Mother in Small-Town America".  During those years both Kevin and Karen had their difficulties with parenthood, employment and trying unsuccessfully to stay out of trouble.  With his prison record, Kevin has had difficulty landing a good job and the drug trade is a constant temptation. Karen is arrested for possession of crack cocaine and gives birth to her and Kevin's child while serving time at Bedford Hills.

Greg Donaldson and Kevin Davis join Bill Jaker to tell about crime and correction, the big city and the small town, the values and realities of life, and what it means to have all these experiences being widely read.  You can still post a comment or a question that will be referred to the guests at OffThePage@WSKG.ORG.

Guests: 
Greg Donaldson
Kevin Davis